Religious Truce

From the safety of the NYT subscriber firewall where few will see him, Nicholas Kristof argues that atheists should stop being so mean to Christians. Especially now:

Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let’s hope that the Atheist Left doesn’t revive them. We’ve suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.

Along with Ann Althouse and Kevin Drum, I have missed this retreat.

Kristof is right, though, when he says that the Richard Dawkins school of in-your-face atheism, which basically calls religious people idiots, lowers the discourse; then again, there’s plenty of that from all quarters. As a general rule, though, argument is more persuasive than insult. That’s especially true if the arguer is in a distinct minority in the society and the insultees are the vast majority. Of course, if one’s aim is publicity and book sales rather than persuasion, bombast the way to go.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    “Kristof is right, though, when he says that the Richard Dawkins school of in-your-face atheism, which basically calls religious people idiots, lowers the discourse; then again, there’s plenty of that from all quarters.”

    I’m about as atheist and secular as you can get, and I’m 100% behind you on Richard Dawkins being an embarassment. When his name is mentioned, I get a feeling of exasperation that I imagine is similar to that of most evangelical Christians get when Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson’s name is brought up…

  2. Anderson says:

    My theory, just devised, is that Kristof decided to put something jaw-droppingly stupid in his column to check whether anyone in the blogosphere is actually reading him.

    The answer — “Ann Althouse is” — may well drive him to despair.

  3. I think that Dawkins comes off especially poorly given that he derives authority from education and intelligence. To then turn around and simply berate people doesn’t exactly make one appear, well, educated and intelligent.

  4. Anderson says:

    Re: Dawkins, the earlier stuff is okay — The Blind Watchmaker for instance.

    And I can see how dumb-as-nails doubt about natural selection would drive him off the wall.

    But it’s still not very productive. The guy needs a blog to let off his steam.

  5. Cernig says:

    Hi James,

    I’ve actually met Dawkins, since my old Philosophy Prof. was a friend of his from their student days, and I’m going to have to stand up to defend him – with a caveat.

    Dawkins is one of three really-scarily-clever people I’ve known in my life. The other two being my old Prof. and the SF writer Charlie Stross.

    His debate technique, which I have witnessed, is entirely that of British university philosphy – very bold, very demanding, and if you cannot argue on the terms of the debate logically then you will be blasted where you stand. If your opponent’s argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on, you don’t offer him one. It’s a rigorous atmosphere that takes no prisoners rather than a bombastic one.

    (You can see effects of this training in UK parliamentary debate or, indeed, in the hard-edged thought behind the comedy of the Monty Python team.)

    Dawkins always loses out when he is reported by the media, I feel. Most of the journalists reporting his words seem to hone in on the most lurid expressions they can, isolating them, rather than the logic of rigorous thought that leads to that seeming “bombast” Controversy sells, but a huge amount is lost in translation.

    And here’s the caveat – it has been 20 years since I last saw Dawkins in action. Maybe in that time fame and fortune have not been kind to his ego. Its a disease more than one bright light has succumbed to. I cannot say otherwise for sure.

    Regards, Cernig

  6. Steven Plunk says:

    Every time I see a christian fish symbol with legs or being eaten by some sort of beast I wonder why people would insult Christians with such a symbol?

    Would it be appropriate to insult other religious symbols in such a manner? That is the in your face atheism that angers me. Why provoke people?

  7. cian says:

    In your face atheism pales in comparison to what the country has had to put up with for the last six years from the religious right.

    To listen to speaker after speaker at the recent Values Voter Summit, a summit lets remember attended by Tony Snow, George Allen and Attorney General Gonzales, describe gay people as faggots and their civil rights movements as ‘inspired from the pits of hell’ and by ‘satanic appointment’ was, to put it mildly, chilling in the extreme.

    I have heard nothing on the left to match this Republican supported hatred for fellow Americans. Perhaps Steven should save his wonderment at those who would insult Christians for those who would be ostracised from society by some of our most respected (in terms of media coverage at least) Christian leaders.

  8. Anderson says:

    Every time I see a christian fish symbol with legs

    It’s not an insult, it’s a disagreement.

    For some reason, a lot of people are confused by the difference between those.

    Myself, I don’t sport the fish-with-legs because it implies Darwinism is contrary to Christianity, which isn’t necessarily so. But it’s not an “insult.” Kind of clever, actually.

  9. Tano says:

    I disagree with the characterization of Dawkins’s approach. He is a strong, rational thinker who doesnt back down, and has the juice to back up his opinions. That is deeply disturbing to people who, despite their protestations of faith, seem to have a deep need to convince themselves, and others, that their beliefs are actually grounded in reason.

    The level of civility that is being sought from Dawkins is essentially that he just shut up.

  10. madmatt says:

    So it is ok for the religious right to criticize and dehumanize anybody who disagrees with them, but using logic and reason to combat that is just too cruel?

    (I am partial to the fetus-killing, anti-religious, terrorist supporter nickname that I have been called for 6 years…I just can’t make it fit on my business card)

  11. MikeT says:

    I will say this for Dawkins, he seems to harbor a much deeper understanding of atheism on such things as morality, with his statements in favor of resuming eugenics research (albeit presumably not overtly coercively as Hitler did). Sam Harris is the true embarrassment and for the life of me, I don’t get why the man is taken seriously by atheists. From his downright pathetic grasp of history to his shrill rantings and ravings, he, not Dawkins, epitomizes what is wrong with these atheist “public intellectuals.”

    We could get into the whole argument about “whether atheists can be moral,” but that wouldn’t result in anything productive, really. To even ask that question presumes that morality is not something that humanity simply dreams up to be self-serving, deluded and the like. For most people, that is precisely what “morality” is. Perhaps that is why the Bible never actually phrases things in terms of morality, but rather holiness versus uncleanliness, the former state of being being something that only God can ordain.

  12. Steven Plunk says:


    I see your point regarding the fish symbol. It is a disagreement but is the best way to voice that disagreement to take a symbol of faith during persecution and twist it around? Good taste, in my opinion, would keep a person from violating the symbols of another person’s religion.

    There are right ways and wrong ways of disagreeing with anyone. I see this as the wrong way.

    I should tell you that I don’t have a fish on my vehicle and don’t attend church. That said, I respect the feelings of those who do and can see how this is a provocation.

    Respect should be a part of any public disagreement.

  13. Anderson says:

    Mr. Plunk, I think the worry is that those who see a Darwin fish as a provocation, are likely those who would feel the same about a Muslim crescent, or an atheist slogan, or pretty much anything that contradicts their (evidently fragile) beliefs.

    That’s the worry; whether it’s valid or not, you can judge for yourself.

  14. RJN says:

    Dawkins is driven by his faith; it gives him his oratorical strength.

  15. Cernig says:

    Let’s not lose sight of the realisation that attacking Dawkins for his abrasive manner is, essentially, a strawman which substitutes for attacking his arguments on evolution vs. creationism.

    Meanwhile, the creationists are up to stuff like this:

    Famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey is giving no quarter to powerful evangelical church leaders who are pressing Kenya’s national museum to relegate to a back room its world-famous collection of hominid fossils showing the evolution of humans’ early ancestors.

    Leakey called the churches’ plans “the most outrageous comments I have ever heard.”

    He told The Daily Telegraph (London): “The National Museums of Kenya should be extremely strong in presenting a very forceful case for the evolutionary theory of the origins of mankind. The collection it holds is one of Kenya’s very few global claims to fame and it must be forthright in defending its right to be at the forefront of this branch of science.” Leakey was for years director of the museum and of Kenya’s entire museum system.

    …”The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact,” said Bishop Bonifes Adoyo, head of the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya, the Christ is the Answer Ministries.

    “Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory,” the bishop said.

    Bishop Adoyo said all the country’s churches would unite to force the museum to change its focus when it reopens after eighteen months of renovations in June 2007. “We will write to them, we will call them, we will make sure our people know about this, and we will see what we can do to make our voice known,” he said.

    Demanding that a museum hide away scientific material so as to avoid upsetting true believers is far, far more worthy of condemnation than any amount of calling people bad names.

    Regards, C

  16. RJN says:


    You are becoming as objectionable as Dawkins. You eject the word “Creationist”, then dance in a little circle pointing outwardly, and infer that all Christians are “young earth” proponents. Not so.

    And, by the way, what is wrong with the Christian peoples of Kenya having a say in what claims a museum for the people of Kenya makes. Notice that it is Leakey who is in the face of the museum demanding that the museum ignore any Christian input.

    And, also by the way, who says, except you, that the Christians insist on putting the Leakey exhibits in a back room?

  17. Cernig says:


    infer that all Christians are “young earth” proponents I do no such thing. Point me to where, if I do.

    what is wrong with the Christian peoples of Kenya having a say in what claims a museum for the people of Kenya makes Science is not a democracy.

    who says, except you, that the Christians insist on putting the Leakey exhibits in a back room?

    Via Cosmos Magazine and Agence France-Presse:

    “When museums put it out there that man evolved from apes, theologically they are affecting many people who are Christians, who believe God created us,” said Bishop Boniface Adoyo, who is leading a campaign against the exhibit. “It’s creating a big weapon against Christians that’s killing our faith,” he added, calling evolution theory an “insult” and dangerous to youths.

    “When children go to museums they’ll start believing we evolved from these apes. This is not the truth,” said Adoyo, pastor of Nairobi’s Christ is the Answer Ministries and chairman of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, which claims to represent churches of 35 denominations with nine million members. “I can’t stand it, neither can other Christians.”

    Regards, Cernig

  18. RJN says:


    I was being a bit snotty and picturing you dancing around pointing at Christians and concluding that we are all “Young earth creationists”. As you know, Creationism is part of the “Young Earth” set of beliefs. Most Christians, of today, don’t have those restrictions in our faith.

    Because of the way I read the Bible, I am one of those who think Intelligent Design is the mechanism most likely to explain our development. ID does not take much (excuse me) monkeying around with the mutation, selection meme to get us where we are.

    Thanks for the extra quotes from the Bishop. They help to understand his stance. Perhaps young minds are not yet ready to absorb all of Dr. Leakey’s ambition.

  19. floyd says:

    cian; will you use this same argument when NAMBLA, finally wins in court? **Or are you bigoted and intolerant?** {grinz}

  20. RJN says:

    One last time. This from

    “At Richard Dawkins’ core is a band geek who is unable to accept the reality that marching tubas will never impress the girls. For all its passionate and detailed explanations of water droplets and whole new kinds of suns, “Unweaving the Rainbow” ultimately amounts to little more than an unconvincing and repetitive refrain: “This one time, at band camp …” Still, Dawkins’ belief in the artistic possibilities of science is rather sweet. It is, as I believe I have read somewhere, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

  21. floyd says:

    thanks Alex!